Dear Friends ie. people who care enough to rally behind me and make a huge company like Air Canada pay attention. This past 48 hrs has been a wild ride and a very good lesson in communication and not taking “we don’t know” for an answer. Last weekend (Aug 24th- 26th), Blackie and the Rodeo Kings played a series of three very successful shows over two days at the wonderful Shrewsbury Festival. It was a very brief trip and we were only there for 48 hours after which we all scattered in various directions.
I finally arrived in Halifax after an especially grueling trip (Manchester – Heathrow – Halifax) hauling my guitar, two suitcases and two carry-ons (I brought the remainder of the merch back to Canada and that’s a lot of crap for one sleep-deprived muso to wrestle between terminals at Heathrow ) After clambering off the plane, I waited in line to get through customs before heading to the baggage carousel with my fellow travelers. Cue the usual wait until the light above carousel 2 flashed and we all gathered like vultures to claim our luggage. Both my suitcases arrived quickly and as guitars often come off last (special handling) I wasn’t too worried as I watched the crowd around the carousel dwindle. However, when the same three bags kept re-appearing on the belt until it finally stopped moving, I knew that something had gone wrong and I was in for the long haul. This is NOT the first time an airline has lost my luggage, nor will it be the last. I always make sure that each piece has lots of identifying features, names, telephone number etc. but it’s still a pain in the arse and anxiety creeps up on you. In the past, when Air Canada has lost my stuff, I’ve gone through the usual rigamarole – fill out the missing luggage file, get a card with a 1-800 number and then start waiting. Anybody who has been through this (and I suspect we all have) can skip the next part, but if you haven’t had an airline lose your luggage (or your guitar!!!) give yourself a pat on the back and then get ready, because it’s going to happen. (Btw – so far, my best experience has been with West Jet who do not refer you to an offshore call center, but deal with it locally and when the missing piece arrives, give you the option of coming to the airport and picking it up yourself in exchange for an airline credit – thereby making you feel like you have some control and saving the airline some courier fees – smart!). I’ve often found the people at the ariport who have the thankless job of cleaning up the mess made by the baggage handlers can be surly and non-communicative, though not always… but this time the guy at Air Canada was cheery and though I was frustrated, I did not vent my spleen on him. However, when he let slip that Terminal 2 at Heathrow (the new “Queens Terminal”) was “notorious” for misplacing luggage, I got even more apprehensive. That night I said a prayer to Saint Townshend ( patron saint of lost or broken guitars…) and turned out the light.
Next morning, I began the adventure by calling the 1-800 number and predictably was put on hold for 30 minutes *why, oh why do they have to play the same garbled dreck that passes for music ON REPEAT when they make you wait… interspersed with curt messages telling you that “call volume is heavier than anticipated” and “your patience is appreciated” also garbled and repeated endlessly). I finally got through to a young woman, “Karen”, at the call center in Delhi who apologised “for the inconvenience” before informing me that they had no status updates and please call back later. I hung up the phone and fired off my first tweet The guitar
@aircanada has LOST (“delayed luggage” my arse) is my precious Manzer. If you feel my pain, please RT followed up by a Facebook post. I’m sure you all remember Dave Carroll’s excellent bit of guerrilla theatre when he posted a youtube of the songs “United Breaks Guitars” (14,185,762 hits to date !!!) and after more than a year of fruitless calling and letter-writing, shamed United Airlines into making good on his broken guitar. The power of social media (in this case Youtube) was breathtaking and for the next couple of years, there were a lot of jokes from friends and strangers alike about flying United. I was definitely thinking about that video when I started composing this first tweet and as that first day wore on and still “no status updates” from Air Canada were forthcoming, I realised that I could not sit back and wait for them to do the right thing. I also very quickly realised the following: 1- Karen in Delhi had no more information than me (you can view the status of your lost luggage on Air Canada’s website). 2 – Karen is hired by a third party call center who’s sole job is to field calls from irate customers like myself. She is not an employee of Air Canada and I was just another angry, disembodied voice calling for information that she does not have. What surprised me to learn later (I made several calls to “Karen” and “Michael” and “John” before getting through to a supervisor “Damon”) is that until your lost luggage is scanned on it’s way to it’s next destination, nobody but the ground crew at the airport, knows where it is… it is NOT in the system. So the sad truth is that the only number you can call for information on your lost luggage puts you in touch with somebody who has no more information than you do AND there is nobody else at Air Canada who you can call… they all refer you back to Karen in Delhi = stonewall. Obviously one has to take a different tack and just like Dave Carroll, I realised that the only way to get their attention was if I asked for a little help from my friends. I stepped up the Tweets and started to target specific fans, friends and twitter addresses that would retweet and who also might be interested in the story.
By the way, this is not just any guitar, Built in 1989 by the legendary Canadian Luthier Linda Manzer this is the guitar that has appeared on countless national and international festival, club, and concert stages. This guitar played The Grand Ol’ Opry, Massey Hall, The National Art’s Center, Womad, The Kennedy Center, Royal Festival Hall etc. etc. This is my guitar, a precious thing that I often spend more time with than my family… I knew that I had to get this message out and that the only way I would get Air Canada’s attention was through the fear of bad PR. After 24 hrs of sustained tweeting, the story was alive and people were retweeting, reposting and composing their own messages, all using the @aircanada address so that there was no way they could ignore the issue which was quickly going viral. I knew that I was getting their attention when @aircanada began tweeting directly to me, this told me that somebody in the PR department had picked up on it and that a completely different part of the company was now engaged. More importantly it meant that I had broken past the stonewall of the call center in Delhi and was now dealing locally where the full impact of this kind of bad PR would actually mean anything at all. I’d love to re-print all the tweets that people came up with, it’s astounding how creative a mind can get with only 140 characters… everything from sorrow to outrage to serious finger pointing with a variety of hashtags like #stillmissing #findtheguitar #believe(!) started to circulate and within a very short time I had a Twitterstorm on my hands… or rather @aircanada did. Facebook was also a big part of this as people commented on my posts with words of encouragement, stories of their own lost-luggage nightmares, a song! (by my friend Dan Fewings) and more ideas for ways to rattle Air Canada’s cage, including the suggestion that I start e-mailing Calvin Rovinescu the Chief Executive Officer at AC <firstname.lastname@example.org> which I did and suggested that others should too (which they did). I’m lucky in that I have “followers” and “Likes” that number in the thousands, so if I want to get the word out, I can (although I wish to God I could drum up that kind of attention for new CD releases or shows… but that’s another story). I KNOW that without that kind of clout, this would not have happened and certainly the next thing that transpired would likely not have happened either.
Day two arrived with still no word of even where the guitar was, never mind when I would get it back… I started thinking about my friend Don Ross’s harrowing story of a lost guitar that completely vanished for years(?) I can’t recall all the details but I seem to remember him finally picking though the contents of one of those fabled lost-luggage warehouses where old “delayed baggage” goes to die and finally finding his guitar – moral of the story if you want to get it done, do it yourself. I continued tweeting, re-tweeting and FBing myself silly, letting that addiction that many of us in the arts who use these tools have, run rampant. I had just come home from a short tour and yet I was holed up in my office pecking away at my computer and ignoring my family, but goddamit, it was working. CBC Halifax got in touch to ask if I wanted to talk about the story on-air that afternoon. Of course I did! and I made sure that @aircanada knew I was going on national radio to talk about their fuckup. About two hours before the broadcast, I got a call from “Sandy” at the AC lost luggage counter at Halifax Airport who repeated the by-now-familiar “we have no further update”. We discussed the problems with Terminal 2 at Heathrow and she informed me that Terminal 2 is supposed to be the terminal for all 28 Star Alliance members (Air Canada, Lufthansa, Swiss United!…). She said that when the terminal was built, a new company was hired to deal with the vast (imagine!) logistics of dealing with all that luggage and that they were constantly screwing up. She said if you were transferring through terminal 2, it was even worse and that she was constantly dealing with “delayed” (I love how they’ve started using that term instead of “lost”) luggage from that glossy new space. When I told her I was going on National Radio shortly there was an audible pause and then she told me she’d be listening and asked me to keep my phone on in case they got word before I went on air. I got the sense that as soon as our call was over, she was going to be burning up the phonelines to London, Montreal and Toronto. There is a saying that goes “there’s no such thing as bad press” but I’m not sure if this is the case. Perhaps the fact that @aircanada received a blip on twitter over the past few days does them more good than harm, but given the fact that they were now calling and tweeting me directly seems to make the case that they wanted this bad press to stop. Anyway I did the interview with Bill Roach (CBC Mainstreet Halifax) and shortly thereafter the story was posted on CBC’s website under the heading Stephen Fearing Wages Twitter War and then the Toronto Sun website picked up the story as did several other sites and newsfeeds. Within 15 minutes of that interview ending, I got a call from Air Canada saying they had found the guitar and that it would be on the next direct flight from Heathrow to Halifax… coincidence? I think not. I think that because you guys circled the wagons and kicked up a big fuss on my behalf, Air Canada was forced to pay attention and when the national media jumped on board they HAD to make things right. So first and foremost A great big THANKYOU to all of you who joined the fight and gave me some of your precious time.
Air Canada is a bit like the Catholic Church in that not all employees are evil, emotionless psycopaths… and for sure there are a few folks who, over the years, wearing an Air Canada uniform, have helped me out or provided customer service that was beyond exemplary. Sadly it is only a few though. Mostly it has been a neutral or negative experience. So why do I keep going back to them? Sometimes I have no choice is the honest answer. Despite what you may have heard, you can make tens of dollars in this business and I have to spend them where I get the most bang for my buck. I cannot afford to fly with my guitar in the seat beside me and I already have too much carry-on (computers and guitar pre-amps/pedals are very, very fragile) to be able to do the gate-check or carry on routine that many of you have suggested, besides I’m paying them to ship me and my luggage from A to B intact and that is the contract we make when I open my wallet right? Other airlines seem to pull this off with aplomb and a smile (mostly) and when they do fuck up, they resolve it with a sense of professionalism (mostly). Air Canada is going to have to take a long hard look at who they have hired to see to their baggage logistics (I’m not even mentioning their in-flight crews). Terminal 2 has been open for two months and already has a reputation for poor service, yes it is a beautiful space, but who cares about cool lighting and artwork if they lose your precious baby? I guess there is nothing more to say except, no matter if you are lucky enough (as am I) to have access to a lot of Twitter accounts etc or not, if they lose your stuff, do not sit still and wait for them to make it right, they may not. When traveling and the inevitable happens, your only recourse is to start yelling loudly and pointedly at the people who can do something about it and sadly that is not Karen in Delhi, nor the poor stiffs behind the desk at the airport your luggage did not arrive at. You must get active with other ticket buying punters and get the attention of those in a position to do something more than file a report. Here’s my guitar… she made it home one more time
with a RUSH tag attached – Hah!
(delivered in a car by an Air Canada employee?).
Thanks again to all of you who jumped to my aid, I am most grateful!
PS – This sad story made the Six o’clock national news… I don’t know quite what to make of that.